In July 1907 the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office issued the decree "Lamentabili," which condemned sixty-five distinctive Modernist doctrines. Two months later appeared the encyclical "Pascendi," denouncing under the name of "Modernism" a group of errors which struck at the very roots of the Christian faith.
These events marked the breaking of a storm that had been threatening for some time, of which the condemnation of certain books of the Abbé Loisy, and other incidents, had been the warning rumblings. Loisy's condemnation let loose an outburst in the rationalist, anti-clerical and Modernist press. "The old shadowy images of Rome gagging her progressive men will be revived with added venom to poison the mind of the public," prophesied a writer in the Ecclesiastical Review, and the prophecy was certainly fulfilled. In vain did the Abbé Monchamp point out, after close analysis of Loisy's book, the impossibility of escaping a conclusion which places the writer in direct opposition to the authoritative teaching of the Church. The authoritative teaching of the Church was to the minds of many a much less important thing than the retaining of a few intelligent men within her fold. Yet even among those outside of the Church there were men who saw more clearly. "From the paternal standpoint of the Church of Rome," wrote Professor Sanday, "it seems to me, if I may say so, that the authorities have acted wisely. It is not an insuperable barrier placed in the way of future progress, but the intimation of a need for caution."
The storm of abuse which had arisen at the condemnation of Loisy, which had been increased by the publication of the decree "Lamentabili," reached its climax at the appearance of the encyclical "Pascendi," which tore the veil from Modernism and exposed its errors with ruthless precision. Modernism, like Jansenism, had made up its mind to remain in the Church and to mould her teaching to its will; and now it was only one more of the many heresies that had fallen on the rock of the promise and been broken in the falling. The pope and Cardinal Merry del Val, who as secretary of state had the honour of sharing in all the attacks that were levelled at his illustrious chief, were denounced as intolerant fanatics. The one idea of Pius X, cried the Modernists, was to repress by violent means every indication of originality of thought and independence of judgement within the Church; he had attempted to stifle a movement with which some of the best thinkers of the age were in sympathy. He was a "good country priest," perhaps; but utterly incapable of dealing with the questions which were at issue. "The Modernist movement had quickened a thousand dim dreams of reunion into enthusiastic hopes," wrote Father Tyrrell, the leader of Modernism in England, "when lo! Pius X comes forward with a stone in one hand and a scorpion in the other."
To many Christians the encyclical "Pascendi" revealed a danger that they themselves had never suspected; and the account of the Modernist doctrines which it so lucidly gave was for them a lesson more eloquent than any censure. It was no empty accusation, much less a travesty, as the Modernists themselves allowed, that masterly analysis of a system which claimed the right to substitute itself for the Catholic conception of a teaching authority established by Jesus Christ. "Yes or no, do you believe in the divine authority of the Church?" asked Cardinal Mercier. "Do you accept outwardly and in the sincerity of your heart what she commands in the name of Christ? Do you consent to obey her? If so, she offers you her sacraments and undertakes to guide you safely into the harbour of salvation. If not, then you deliberately sever the tie that unites you to her, and break the bond consecrated by her grace. Before God and your conscience you no longer belong to her; don't remain in obstinate hypocrisy a pretended member of her fold. You cannot honestly pass yourself off as one of her sons; and as she cannot be a party to hypocrisy and sacrilege, she bids you, if you force her to it, to leave her ranks. . . . The Modernism condemned by the pope is the negation of the Church's teaching."
What is Modernism? is a question that has been often asked. It is not easy to put the matter in a nutshell, and various answers have been given. For a complete analysis of Modernism we must go to the encyclical itself. After condemning Modernism as "a meeting-ground of all heresies," the pope denounced in it a group of errors which included: the separation of an "historical" from a "religious" Christ; the reversal of the Incarnation by the denial of the entering of the Divine into the temporal sphere; the reducing of faith to a matter of feeling; the reducing of religious authority from its apostolic basis to a sort of "chairmanship," and the throwing over of the Bible and revelation in favour of a personal inward enlightenment. The encyclical proceeded to deal with the subject in three parts, First came the analysis of Modernist teaching, with agnosticism as the basis of its philosophy and immanence as its positive side, thus placing the explanation of religion in man alone, and lifting conscience to the same level as revelation. Faith and science to the Modernist are separate, the latter being supreme, and religious dogmas are not only inadequate but must be changeable to be adapted to living needs. Everything must be subject to evolution, and these principles were being applied to the deformation of history and of apologetics.
In the second part Modernism was traced to its causes. "The proximate cause," said the pope, "is without any doubt an error of the mind. The remoter causes are two: curiosity and pride. Curiosity, unless wisely held in check, is of itself sufficient to account for all errors. But far more effective in darkening the mind and leading it into error is pride, which, as it were, dwells in Modernism as in its own house. Through pride the Modernists have overestimated themselves. They are puffed up with a vainglory which lets them see themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge, and makes them say, 'We are not as the rest of men'; which leads them, lest they should seem as other men, to embrace and to devise novelties of the most absurd kind. It is pride which . . . causes them to demand a compromise between authority and liberty. It is owing to their pride that they seek to be the reformers of others while they forget to reform themselves."
"If from moral causes we pass to the intellectual, the first and most powerful is ignorance. These very men who pose as teachers of the Church, who speak so highly of modern philosophy and show such contempt for Scholasticism, have embraced the one with its false glamour precisely because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of recognizing the confusion of their ideas and of refuting sophistry. Their system, full of so many errors, has been born of the union between faith and false philosophy." "Modernism is inclined to pantheism by its doctrine of divine immanence—i.e., of the intimate presence of God within us," continues the pope. "Does God declare Himself distinct from us? If so, then the position of Modernism must not be opposed to that of Catholicism, nor exterior revelation be rejected. But if God declares Himself not distinct from us, the position of Modernism becomes openly pantheistic."
In the third part are set forth the remedies for the evil, amongst which are the study of scholastic philosophy in seminaries and by clerics at the universities; ceaseless activity and watchfulness on the part of the bishops by a diocesan censorship of books, and the tendering of an oath to clergy and professors by which they were to bind themselves to reject the errors denounced in the encyclical and decree.
The danger was indeed a serious one. The Modernists had put themselves forward as the champions of science, led to the conclusions they defended by anxiety for scientific truth. Their movement from the point of view of many marked a religious reaction against the materialism and positivism which had failed so signally to satisfy longings of the human soul. It was a reaction in the right direction which had taken the wrong road, which threatened to land its votaries in a deeper ditch than that from which they had set out. There was therefore an attractive side to its teaching, especially for the young.
The storm raged hotly for a while round the pontiff who had spoken so fearlessly; but a deep thanksgiving was in the hearts of those who could see the issues at stake. "In his dealings with France," wrote one of these, "the Holy Father saved, so to speak, the body of the Church, but now he has saved her soul." "The pope has spoken, Modernism has ceased to be," wrote Paul Bourget a year or two later. "Five years ago," wrote Monsignor R. H. Benson on the death of Pius X, "it was proclaimed that by his action thought was once more thrown back into the fetters from which it was shaking itself loose, and that Rome henceforward must be considered as finally out of the struggle; that once more she had feared to face the light, and held back or cast out those of her children who honestly desired it. And now there is practically not a Christian anywhere—a Christian, that is to say, in the historic sense of the word, who believes that Christ's mission lay in the revelation which He promulgated, and not merely in the impulse which His coming gave to spiritual aspiration— there is not a Christian in this sense, however far his sympathies may be from the Catholic interpretation of the contents of that revelation, who does not acknowledge that Pius stood firm where their religious leaders faltered or temporized; and that Rome, under his leadership, placed herself on the side of plain Gospel truth, of the authority of Holy Scripture and of the divinity of Christ."